Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cherry Bombs: The Runaways

Given that The Runaways, a new film about the late ‘70s all-girl hard rock band, is written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, who cut her teeth doing videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Christine Aguilera and The White Stripes, it’s rather surprising that The Runaways’ music ends up so secondary to their story. Their story doesn't come to much either. Sigismondi gets so caught up in art school impressionism that she loses touch with the theme of the material. Instead of providing the propulsion needed in depicting a young rock band finding its chops, The Runaways gets lost in a haze of rock video clich├ęs and amorphous trysts between lead singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and lead guitarist Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart). The picture develops about as much fizz as stale ginger ale.

The Runaways were a group of underage Southern California female misfits who were molded by L.A.’s freak Svengali Kim Fowley into a pre-punk outfit that confronted their audience, in both song and image, with a provocative jail-bait allure. What they provided was a clever reversal of the male rockers’ sexual obsession with young girls that was often depicted in songs like Andre Williams’ hilarious “Jail Bait,” Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and The Rolling Stones’ “Stray Cat Blues.” These brash and provocative girls turned that prurient fascination back on the audience with trashy rock like “Cherry Bomb” (a saucy re-write of “Wild Thing”) and “You Drive Me Wild.” While clearly influenced by the polymorphous glam of David Bowie and Sweet, The Runaways also had some of the tough effrontery of The Ramones and The New York Dolls. Fronted by Cherie Currie, a blond punk chanteuse in lingerie, The Runaways had solid back-up with Joan Jett’s surly rhythm guitar, Lita Ford’s stinging lead runs and Sandy West’s kicking-over-the-trash-can drumming. Kim Fowley brought together a group of disaffected middle-class teenagers and made their disaffection part of their group identity. But, the irony is, that fierce independence was built on their total fealty towards him.

Part of this theme does get into the movie, but Sigismondi lacks the dramatic instincts to shape the material in such a way that the group – as a group – makes any sense. We don’t really get to see how the girls bond under Fowley’s sadism. She not only takes great liberties with their story (the film is based on Cherie Currie’s memoir), Sigismondi doesn’t develop that core relationship with Fowley which would ultimately lead to the band’s break-up. Sigismondi chooses instead to focus on the dynamic between Currie and Jett so that the rest of the band becomes invisible supporting players. For the first third of the picture, though, both Fanning and Stewart give credible performances. Fanning has a quiet insolence that makes her a shrewd choice to play Currie. (It’s a shame, though, that she gets stuck playing out conventionally dramatic family scenes with her jealous sister and alcoholic father.) Stewart thankfully loses some of those mannerisms that marred her starring roles in Twilight and Adventureland. She downplays Jett’s tough-girl image and illuminates instead the pleasures she gets from her impudent behaviour. Michael Shannon is on hand to play Kim Fowley and though it seems like the ideal Shannon role, he devours so much scenery that the camera has to duck. Michael Shannon is too perfect for Fowley and his abusive attributes come across more as an actor’s stunt than a true performance. (He looks like a brooding Lurch doing Max Cady out of Scorsese’s Cape Fear.)

The Runaways could have been a terrific rock and roll B-movie blast, something along the lines of American Hot Wax (1978), if only Floria Sigismondi had more confidence in the sauciness of the material and better instincts in directing the actors. (She does have a great original opening shot, though, a female teenage rite-of-passage that promises more than what the movie ultimately delivers on.) The Runaways becomes more and more conventionally flat as it goes on. When the band breaks up and Currie has transcended her drug trials, she hears Joan Jett on the radio sending out her new record, a cover of Tommy James & the Shondells’ ethereal classic “Crimson and Clover.” Sigismondi signals the audience that, through this tune, these girls discover a lasting and loving bond that goes beyond the sordid rock world that tore them apart.

Isn’t it sweet?

Rather than do justice to the cherry bombs The Runaways dropped on the rock audience, Sigismondi’s film turns their tale into punk kitsch.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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